This Aug. 21 was undoubtedly one of the roughest days of the Trump presidency. His former campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted on multiple counts of tax fraud, failure to disclose foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. As well, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, including tax evasion, campaign finance violations and unlawful corporate contributions.
But the very next day, Trump attempted to redirect the national discussion and appease white supremacists by tweeting about supposed land seizures and “mass killings” of white farmers in South Africa, citing Fox News and Tucker Carlson as his source.
Trump’s attempt to divert attention from the judicial woes of his associates to South Africa was flagrant but not unprecedented.
With a similar nexus of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, in many ways, the U.S. and South Africa have had comparable histories over the last four centuries. During the 17th century, in both places, Dutch and English merchants and religious zealots migrated to establish colonies. Slave plantation systems, mineral extraction and displacement of native populations eventually built their economies.
They also built a shared racialized, masculine mythology of the self-made man. In a similar separation from their parent nations, white settlers in both nations declared themselves the rightful inhabitants of these territories by declaring themselves Afrikaners or Americans.
Regardless of national myths, state power and technological advances blazed the trail for the expansion of both countries into their current dimensions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The steam engine and telecommunications shrunk the distance between vast territories, allowing for the transfer of goods and information. Advances in mineral extraction made the Indigenous territories in the middle of both nations more lucrative. The use of the gatling gun by colonial armies, in the concurrent Zulu Wars and Sioux Wars, transferred Indigenous land to the hands of not only longtime settlers but recent European migrants.
From the multiple Homestead Acts and overthrow of Reconstruction in the United States to the South African Native Lands Act of 1913, African and Indigenous people became relegated to rural land reserves, sharecropping and low-paid domestic wage labor.
As a result, whites in South Africa currently own about three-quarters of the agricultural land, down from nearly 90 percent in the 1990s — about 9 to 10 times their national representation. Interestingly, a 2002 study in Rural America magazine found that white Americans owned 97 percent of U.S. farmland.
Since the rise of post-World War II Black Power in Southern Africa, white racists in the U.S. have made support for white settler regimes paramount. In the 1970s and 80s, white U.S. mercenaries flooded the ranks of Rhodesian and South African militias. Also, myths of white land loss and white genocide have fueled the fears of diminished representation by a new generation of white racist youth, as evinced in their idolizing of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine African Americans in a South Carolina church.
Far from the hyperbolic claims of Trump and Fox News, the premier contradiction of post-apartheid South Africa has been the overwhelming stasis in white land ownership. For many Black radicals worldwide, this stasis has troubled the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. With the rise of Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party, a revolutionary fervor not seen since the death of Chris Hani in 1993 has returned. Blasting Trump as a pathological liar, Malema subsequently warned the U.S. president to “stay out of South African affairs.”
Trump’s grandfather, Frederick Trump, made his family fortune “mining miners” in the Yukon Gold Rush. Trump is clearly aware of the history described above. Yet, considered alongside his recent bailout of U.S. agribusiness, Trump has placed his fortunes and political survival on this shared history that binds the white elite in both nations.